Entries in Orson Scott Card (2)


Learning by Doing

Occam asked a question after my last post, wondering what problems I'd found in the draft of my manuscript. The short answer is that I'd chosen the wrong main character, midway through the writing process. I'd actually started the thing without any real notion of a strong main character at all, then later gone back and added a bunch that made the main character out of a very powerful person in the novel.

It was only subsequently re-reading an old copy of Orson Scott Card's book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy that I realized my mistake.

The odd thing is that I'd read that book before, and other similar words of sage advice, yet they hadn't stuck with me until I'd gone and made the errors that they warned against. It's as though it wasn't enough to read that there was a hole in the floor. I had to go trip in it to learn not to step there.

I suppose I've learned that lesson enough times in my life that I shouldn't be surprised by it anymore, and yet there it is. It's still surprising.


Fantasy and Science Fiction

In an earlier blog post I said that SF was a subcategory of Fantasy fiction. Now I'd like to expand a little on what I think the distinction is between SF and Fantasy as separate fiction categories.

A lot of ink has been spilled and pixels darkened on this topic in the past (for example, by Orson Scott Card), and I don't consider myself an expert on it all. But with that caveat out of the way, it seems to me there are two ways to approach the problem: as a functional matter or as a more philosophical matter.

Functionally, Science Fiction is fiction about scientific topics. In particular, it tends to be future-oriented, dealing with new technologies or scientific discoveries, or with extrapolations from present technologies and discoveries. It tends to involve space ships, artificial intelligence, computers and aliens from different planets.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is functionally about the past or a magicked present. It tends to involve medieval trappings like swords and castles as well as sorcerers, dragons, and alien creatures from the realms of human mythology like elves and dwarves. If it's set in the present time it tends to involve creatures like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches and again magic.

But I think we can begin to probe a deeper difference. SF worlds, it seems to me, are generally those that are closer to a naturalist paradigm where the universe runs by mindless physical or natural laws. The characters or their predecessors gained power through a scientific understanding of those laws, using it to construct new technologies.

Fantasy worlds generally work differently. They have the feel that the basic structure of the universe is sentient. For example, the universe understands spoken words, and so things like spells are possible. It is what we would call a "supernatural" metaphysics, and science often appears impossible or stunted in such worlds.

Of course, there are plenty of in-between places. Much of mid-20th century SF, for instance, dealt with ESP, and some SF deals with souls. People did think at one time that there would be a science of these things, or that they might work by physical law. Now we know they don't, indeed that the phenomena don't exist, so it seems to me that any story dealing with such things is a ways towards being Fantasy.

And of course there are other issues of so-called 'hard' vs. 'soft' SF, where 'soft' SF is again somewhere midways between being Science Fiction and Fantasy. One might say that Star Wars lives in such a place, although the notion of "the Force" is also sufficiently supernatural that one also might push aside all the functionally SF aspects of Star Wars and just say it's a space fantasy.

These semantic games are fun for awhile but when you step on the throttle you just spin your wheels. In the final analysis what's important is the quality of the story.